Once a month, the Citizen Police Complaint Commission meets in the Civic Chambers to review complaints filed against Long Beach police officers.
The CPCC was formed via ballot measure in 1990 as an attempt to create an independent investigating body for police complaints.
In 1989, a year before the commission was created, a black man named Don Jackson was beaten and thrown through a plate glass window by Long Beach police officers. Ironically, Jackson was an off-duty Hawthorne police officer. Councilmember Al Austin said that this incident prompted the creation of the CPCC.
“Here we are, 30 years later. It’s time for us to look at ways that the CPCC can be updated and improve accountability, transparency, confidence in the relationship between the community and our police department,” Austin said at the June 9 council meeting.
The commission is made up of 11 members, nine of which are chosen by city councilmembers and two of which are at-large commissioners.
“The CPCC is neither an advocate for the complainant nor for the police personnel,” the city’s website states. The group has the authority to “administer and investigate, through an independent investigation, allegations of police misconduct with an emphasis on excessive force, false arrest and complaints with racial or sexual overtones.”
According to the CPCC bylaws, the commission’s activities must be presented to the mayor and City Council annually.
Despite this mandate, the CPCC hasn’t released an annual report since 2015.
Now, in the wake of increased scrutiny and at the request of the city council, the CPCC is catching up with four years worth of annual reports.
At the June 9 city council meeting, both councilmembers Dee Andrews and Suzie Price mentioned that they had never received a CPCC briefing.
“This commission cannot continue to be a box to check while reviewing complaints,” Andrews said. “If we are being completely honest, I have never heard from a single commissioner or this commission more than once. I have never had a briefing from them like other commissions made it a point to do so.”
According to CPCC manager Patrick Weithers, the lack of reports is due to a shortage of personnel.
“Over the past two years, we haven’t had a lot of staffing,” Weithers said. “There was even one point where, before I took this current role, when I was still an investigator with the CPCC, I was literally the only investigator for quite a few months.”
From 2014 to 2015, the CPCC budget increased by $44,636. The next year, it increased by $131,090, then steadied around an average annual budget of $381,935 from 2016 to 2019.
Increased funding doesn’t necessarily lead to an increase of time to form the annual report, given fluctuating complaint numbers and a steady backlog of complaints from the previous year.
This past year, their 2020 funding was cut $50,849. The commission currently has one part-time and one full-time investigator, but Weithers himself investigates cases as well to help get cases briefed faster.
Approximate annual reports created using CPCC agendas
Though their discussions are private, their commission’s findings are public record. According to Weithers, the annual reports for 2016 to 2019 won’t be published for several weeks.
The Signal Tribune reviewed three years worth of CPCC agendas and turned those findings into annual reports. Reports from 2016 have been excluded because the data was not formatted for analysis.
Upon asking for confirmation of the values in the reports, Weithers said that he could not confirm the values since their reports have not been finalized. However, he did say that all the values were within 10 points of the accurate values. Therefore, all values below are approximations.
In 2017, the CPCC reviewed 235 cases, 144 of which were dismissed. The cases contained 389 allegations.
The most common allegations were unbecoming conduct (122), use of force (73), failure to take action (35), dishonesty (18), failure to take report (16), failure to care for property (15), failure to investigate (15), harassment (14) and profanity (14).
In 2018, the CPCC reviewed 167 cases. 97 of which were dismissed. The cases contained 255 allegations total.
The most common allegations were unbecoming conduct (96), use of force (40), bias-based policing (21) and failure to take action (12).
In 2019, the CPCC reviewed 207 cases, 130 of which were dismissed. The cases contained 346 allegations in total.
The most common allegations were unbecoming conduct (136), use of force (62), improper arrest (18), bias-based policing (16), failure to investigate (15), failure to take action (12) and improper search (12).
Cases marked “No Further Action” for a variety of reasons
In many cases, dismissals of “no further action” don’t simply mean the commission is sweeping an allegation under the rug.
According to Weithers, there are a variety of reasons a case gets dismissed. These could include any of the following:
• The complaint was for an officer that’s not a member of the LBPD
• Complainant withdraws complaint
• Person who submitted the complaint doesn’t respond to phone calls or emails, so there’s no way for investigators to look into the case
• Lack of evidence for case
• Complainant got location mixed up, such as submitting a complaint for an officer in Long Beach, New York rather than Long Beach, California
Even when there’s a lack of evidence, the investigating team will still look into the case to confirm details about the place and time of the incident.
“We basically try to look for any information we can around what they wrote to us,” Weithers said. “Sometimes people send a complaint that may be one or two sentences long, so it’s kind of tough to go off that.”
Police officer records protected from the commission due to privacy laws
The commission reviews hundreds of complaints each year. They’re presented with evidence from investigators and deliberate behind closed doors in accordance with Section 832.7 of the California Penal Code, which guarantees confidentiality of police personnel records.
Due to the privacy of police personnel files, commissioners are limited in what information they can receive for their deliberations. While they do receive body-worn camera video and police reports, they can’t look at an officer’s overall personnel file.
In the death of George Floyd, reports revealed that the officer who killed him had 17 complaints on his file. If that officer’s case came to the CPCC, commissioners wouldn’t be able to use the officers past to inform their decision-making.
“That’s something that’s definitely come up and something we want to get to them, but unfortunately at the moment, they can’t see officer history,” Weithers said. “I would love for them to have access to do that.”
Weithers agreed that having personnel files available might make a difference in some of the commission’s decisions.
However, decisions about making police personnel files public would have to come down from the state level.
Commissioners are also prevented from obtaining compelled statements from police officers. Though they’re not allowed to access these statements, the city manager looks at compelled statements and internal affairs investigations to come up with his final finding.
Since the city manager decides the final outcome of a police complaint, whether that’s exoneration or additional training, many have questioned the true authority of the CPCC.
At a Black Lives Matter protest on June 5, CPCC commissioner Porter Gilberg called out the commission as a “farce.” In his speech, reproduced by FORTHE, Gilberg critiqued the commission’s lack of authority and lack of access to evidence.
“Commissioners do not have access to all the evidence in an investigation. Evidence is, in fact, withheld from us that would allow us to make a more informed decision,” Gilberg said. “Because we do not have access to all the evidence, we don’t even know what we’re not seeing. This evidence we do not have access to is often cited by the city manager as reasons for overturning our recommendations to uphold allegations of misconduct.”
Though the CPCC investigates and makes recommendations on cases, their decisions must be validated by the city manager. According to their website, the commission’s findings can result in the accused personnel being disciplined, trained or exonerated, but they cannot recommend discipline or penalties.
“As a former commissioner myself, I know how much work goes into reviewing these cases, how many late nights people put into it, studying these cases,” Austin said to the council. “Their agendas oftentimes resemble ours in the volume of reading that goes into these cases that come before the CPCC. Their meeting packets are thick.”
Due to the nature of the data, there’s no way to tell which officers correspond with each case. In addition, there’s no way of knowing the outcomes of individual cases.
“I guess throughout the history of the CPCC, especially since I’ve been here, I know this is just the way things have been done,” Weithers said.
He said he wished there was a way to see the outcomes of particular cases, but acknowledged that it would mean that people may be able to correlate complaint outcomes with specific officers.
Potential revisions to the commission would have to be voted on via ballot measure
On their June 9 meeting, city councilmembers requested City Manager Tom Modica come back to the council within 30 days with a full report on the CPCC, including a summary of investigations over the past five years.
The item, proposed by city councilmembers Al Austin, Suzie Price, Dee Andrews and Rex Richardson, also requested recommendations for possible revisions to improve accountability and transparency in the relationship between the police department and the community.
As of today, no report has been filed, but the council expressed leniency given that the department is short-staffed.
All revisions to the CPCC would require a ballot measure. Since it’s too late to file a measure for the upcoming November election, any revision would likely occur during the next scheduled election.